Making sense of pottery and ceramics

Earthenware ‘Tide washed bowl” by Jane Silk

Are you as confused as me by all the terms used in pottery or ceramics?

Do you know your earthenware from your stoneware?

I certainly didn’t. I have done a bit of research and will try to enlighten you into the secret language of those artists who work with ceramics.

WikiDiff tells me that a potter is one who makes pots and other ceramics. A ceramicist makes ceramic objects ; a potter……..

It is not going to get any easier…..

The two words are essentially interchangeable.

Both involve the four processes of forming,( creating the shape) firing, (baking in a kiln) glazing (applying a decorative coating) and re-firing to harden the glaze. Both use clay as the principle medium.

Artists creating unique objects for their aesthetic appeal sometimes use the term fine art ceramicist to differentiate themselves from the traditional potter who traditionally makes large volumes of household wares. Other artists will resolutely call themselves a potter. The choice is theirs.

Stoneware keyhole pot with lizards by Jane Bridger at Artspring Gallery

There are several types of ceramics.



Earthenware has been produced for over 9000 years, and is made of porous , opaque clay which is fired ( baked in a kiln) at a relatively low temperature.

Earthenware pebbles by Jane Silk at Artspring gallery
Guinea fowl ( earthenware) by Jane Silk at Artspring Gallery

Perhaps the best known earthenware are the Chinese clay warriors of the terracotta army which were built in 246 BC to 208 BC.

Grayson Perry also works with earthenware for his large painted vases and urns.

Grayson Perry
Barbaric Splendour


Glazed ceramic

67 x 35 cm


Stoneware is also clay, but it is fired at a very high temperature 1180-1326 °C . This makes it robust and durable.

Much tableware is stoneware for this reason, and is usually dishwasher-proof.

You will probably know of Denby potteries stoneware which is made in Denby, Derbyshire. They have been making tableware for 200 years.

Denby potteries imperial blue tea/coffee cup

At Artspring Gallery you will find unique pieces of stoneware created as artworks in themselves.

stoneware bowls by Jane Bridger at Artspring gallery
Coastal pot in stoneware | Jane Silk at Artspring Gallery

Next there is porcelain.


Porcelain is fired to a very high temperature 1200-1400°C. The clay contains Kaolin which imparts a glassy or translucent appearance. It is also ‘sonorous’ , having a singing sound when tapped. In China the presence of this sound is used to differentiate between porcelain and stoneware.

Chinese porcelain from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) is highly valued.


Contemporary porcelain makes interesting references to ancient traditions, such as those of the Ming dynasty.

‘Nomad patterns’ in porcelain by Livia Marin
Lei Xue | Drinking Tea 2010
hand painted porcelain

Bone China

I was going to skip this section, as I thought it was just tea cups…. but then I discovered the Scottish ceramicist Chris Wight, who works with bone china despite the challenges of its fragility. He is drawn by the whiteness and translucency of the china.

Bone china contains ash from cow bones, which creates its unique qualities.

Bone china art | Chris Wight

Chris Wight: Curvilinear Construction, Slab-rolled water-jet-cut bone china.

So there we have it.

Potters and pottery. Ceramicists and fine art ceramics.

They all use clay, and they all fire it (bake it)……

How they make it and decorate it will have to wait for another day.

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